When I see people write that no MMO can hope to retain people beyond 3 months now, like they did back in the big 3 days, I can only shake my head, laugh, and think about my recent two years with Darkfall, my almost three with EVE, and the infinite amount of time I’m about to spend with MMO baby jesus DF:UW.
Snark aside, the reality is that most MMOs after 2004 are designed, either intentionally (GW2) or not (SW:TOR), to be short. The first time I heard EAWare mention the 4th pillar is the first time I said SW:TOR is going to fail (look it up kids). That one single design decision is all I needed to know about the game, because NOTHING could have saved SW:TOR from being a short-burst game after the 4th pillar was announced. (Short of going in the total opposite direction after the story end. Gee I wonder what EAWare is focusing on of late?)
Consider these two stark contrasts. In GW2 you have access to EVERYTHING your character can do combat-wise at level 30, which lets be really kind and say takes 30 days to reach. In EVE, you won’t be able to sit (forget flying well) in one of the biggest ships (Titan) in the first 177 days, assuming you do NOTHING but straight train towards that (and completely ignoring how you would actually acquire one).
The question at hand is not which method you would prefer, or which one is more ‘fun’. The question is simply this: out of the two options above, which one sounds like it’s designed for a game that the devs expect you to play long-term, and which one is designed to be played in a short burst?
Of course for the 177 day training to be found worthwhile, everything else around it must also work to some extent, and in EVE it does. I’m by no means saying that long-term retention is as simple as extending the ‘grind’ and calling it a day. As I’ve said thousands of times now, long-term retention design is HARD. Really, really hard. But hard does not mean impossible, and under the right conditions, long-term retention done well can yield WoW (12m subs). Most likely it yields EVE (400k subs). Maybe if you really go niche it yields Darkfall (100b subs). So long as you properly identify your market size and deliver something for it, you can be successful on a variety of levels. Not everyone (anyone?) can be WoW, and that’s ok.
And it’s important to remember that much of the current MMO population is not interested in long-term retention. Whether someone outright states they don’t want to play something longer than a month, or has a playstyle that reflects it (solo), these people are not looking for the same thing people interested in living in a virtual world are. They might drop in and visit (tourists), but regardless of the design, you just can’t retain them. (WoW is the MMO first-love for many, which is why it draws them back time and time again. It’s another perfect-storm situation that can’t be repeated. It’s also dying and something like 5 people bought into Panda-time and 3 of them have already quit, so whatever).
The mistake so many devs have made is believing that they CAN retain them, if only they tweak the design and add more solo PvE content to a PvP game (WAR), or put in a 20 level pre-game to the core game (AoC), or spend a billion dollars on one-off voice acting (SW:TOR). These design decisions sacrifice the long-term for a quick burst, and the expected result happens; you get your short burst at the expense of your long-term. It’s why MMO release after MMO release looks exactly the same, and why it has convinced some that that’s just how things are today.
The reason I cheer for games like SW:TOR to fail is because, hopefully at some point, developers will wake up and realize you can’t attract the millions of short-burst players AND retain them by trying to design for both.
If you want to make a short-burst MMO like GW2, go for it. Sell the box and don’t expect more after, have a business plan that supports that expectation, and make the best one-months-worth of content you possibly can. If you do it right you will sell a whole lot of boxes and people will move on happily a month later. Just don’t do PR where you proclaim to have ‘fixed’ the MMO genre and all will be good.
And if you want to get $15 a month from a few hundred thousand people, please design accordingly as well. That group has shown a willingness to deal with valleys if the peaks are worthwhile, but they better have something to do in six months, and that something better not be the exact same thing just reskinned from the first month. Plan your business model accordingly, figure out a way to handle the tourists initially, and don’t get fooled into thinking you have something bigger than you actually do. Long-term retention MMOs are a niche. It’s a pretty sizable niche, and $15 a month for 6 months is more than $60 once, but yea, it’s hard to get right.
As players, we have to be honest with ourselves. You can’t expect the highs of long-term moments to fit into your ultra-casual schedule. The peaks and valleys will be more muted because in the MMO genre, you get what you put in. That said, it’s not nearly as hard to be part of something big as some make it out to be. World-first raiding and the time/dedication it requires is not the only way to get a huge high from an MMO. Just being a regular member of a guild doing something big/cool might be enough.
Of course, that guild can’t do something really cool if everyone moves to the next game in a month, but that’s the tradeoff you accept when deciding between the two styles.